Dying for a Home: Toxic Trailers Are Making Katrina Refugees Ill
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When Katrina hit, the federal government had standing contracts with a number of companies to provide goods and services during natural disasters, including firms that manufacture, haul, set up and maintain temporary housing. Given the unprecedented number of people displaced by Katrina, FEMA contracted with the major trailer makers, such as Gulf Stream Coach, Fleetwood Enterprises, Monaco Coach and others, to provide more than 100,000 travel trailers. Only 14,000 of them were standard trailers, purchased "off the lot" from retail dealers.

The majority were stripped-down models, described as "no frills units" by the marketing director of Gulf Stream, which landed a $521 million contract to make 50,000 trailers for FEMA. "We gave them the time schedule to produce the trailers," explains James McIntyre, a FEMA spokesperson. "They hired new staff or whatever they needed to do to meet the schedule."

Trailer manufacturers set up ad hoc assembly lines, advertised in local newspapers and hired temporary workers to fill FEMA orders at breakneck speed. On some assembly lines, workers say, they were expected to produce a trailer in eight to ten minutes. Twelve-hour shifts and six-day workweeks were common. "Under the best of conditions, some trailer manufacturers do not really have good quality control," says Connie Gallant, president of the RV Consumer Group, a nonprofit that rates the quality of mobile housing and trailers. "In a mass production frenzy, that quality control pretty much goes out the window."

"Even if imported materials that release high levels of formaldehyde were used", says air expert Thad Godish, "it's perfectly legal, because there are no standards."

One critical quality-control question concerns the construction materials used in the trailers. Many American composite wood and particle-board makers produce low-formaldehyde-emitting materials. In Indiana, where Gulf Stream and a number of other trailer firms are located, companies were scrambling to find enough construction materials. Scientists and housing experts believe that the materials used to fabricate the FEMA trailers may have been imported from countries that produce high-formaldehyde-emitting particle board and composite woods.

"The levels of formaldehyde that have been reported down there you don't see in the average American-made mobile home," says Thad Godish, a professor of environmental management at Ball State University, in Indiana. Godish, an expert on indoor air pollution, has consulted on some 350 lawsuits involving formaldehyde in mobile homes.

A class-action lawsuit was filed against FEMA and some trailer manufacturers in Louisiana in June on behalf of residents suffering from respiratory and flu-like illnesses they attribute to formaldehyde inside their trailers. Sean Trundy, an attorney for the plaintiffs, says that after he filed the lawsuit, several Indiana workers, hired temporarily by the trailer makers, contacted him. They had come down with similar illnesses while working on the trailers.

"One complained that his ears ruptured and bled. Many had nosebleeds, headaches and flu-like symptoms. Some were coughing up blood," says Trundy, who plans to call them as witnesses as the residents' case progresses. "They told me some wood products came from Africa. The longer they continued to produce FEMA trailers, the worse the materials got. Apparently the manufacturer's regular suppliers could not keep up with demand." Trundy hired an independent testing lab in Pennsylvania to evaluate some plaintiffs' trailers. Formaldehyde levels in the living room of one were more than three times the EPA's limit, according to the lab's report. The Pennsylvania lab recommended that "residents should move from the affected dwellings until formaldehyde levels can be lowered."

Gulf Stream Coach, the firm that supplied the largest number of trailers for evacuees, did not return calls asking for comment on formaldehyde or the materials used in trailers made for FEMA. A spokesperson for Fleetwood Enterprises, one of the large trailer makers, said she could not comment on the formaldehyde issue because the lawsuit against the company is in litigation.

Kevin Broom, the spokesperson for the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association, says that manufacturers have told his organization that they generally use low-formaldehyde-emitting materials in trailers. "I do know that there are engineered wood products used that come from China," Broom adds, but he's not sure which were used in the FEMA trailers. "Even if imported materials that release high levels of formaldehyde were used," says air expert Thad Godish, "it's perfectly legal, because there are no standards."